“Jihad is for teenagers. Now I am too old.”
It’s not exactly the answer you’d like to hear when asking a supposedly reformed fundamentalist if they have an interest in rejoining al-Qaida, but it’s better than nothing. And at least he’s being honest.
The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching in Meg Smaker’s new documentary, Jihad Rehab. The American film-maker had access to the Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice and Care in Saudi Arabia, where she followed the progress of a group of men released from the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, some after nearly 15 years. What follows is a heady plunge into restorative justice, mind control, and cultural conditioning. This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.
The facility looks a lot more like a junior college than a prison, and in between interviews our subjects are shown using colored pencils during art therapy, learning about this new thing called Google, or listening to lectures about Freudian psychology at “interpersonal skills class”. An Islamic scholar explains, in specific terms, how al-Qaida misinterpreted the teachings of the faith.
Eventually, these men will be set free. One former graduate named Khalid is shown as a success story. He has a family and a good business selling toy remote control cars. He tries not to dwell on his past as a bomb maker, and admits the deeds of his past do keep him up at night. His warm smile diminishes when he thinks about people jumping from the World Trade Center towers.
There’s little implication that these are men falsely accused of their crimes. This is not Taxi to the Dark Side. The film does offer context, however, about what young men like this thought jihad was before they left their homes for Afghanistan. For them, it was joining a war they were told was just. They were not terrorists, they were soldiers.
An exception is one member of the group, Ali, who had the misfortune of being the younger brother of Qasim al-Raymi, the head of al Qaida in Yemen. (Al-Raymi was killed by an American airstrike after the events of this film.) Ali was captured after time spent with his brother at a training facility at the age of 16. If his claims are to be believed, his entire incarceration was due to the US government looking for information about his brother, and he himself had never done anything. But for years at Guantánamo, he denied that they were even related.
Wondering just how much to believe these men now isn’t just cynicism. Smaker does not whitewash one of the rehab’s failures, in which someone made it through the program essentially by lying through his teeth. As soon as he was released, he rejoined a terrorist cell. This proves to be the exception, though, thanks to some measures put in place.
Graduates of the program need a family sponsor, whom they put at risk of arrest if they leave the country. (Arrest in Saudi Arabia, it bears repeating, is not usually a slap on the wrist.) Nadir, a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard, is vouched for by a cousin too young to have ever known him before Guantánamo. “They lost two buildings, we lost two countries,” he says about the 9/11 attacks with a shrug, and says he, too, felt the call to jihad when he was younger but his mother hid his passport.
Circumstances change for everyone as Saudi Arabia’s political winds shift when Mohammad bin Salman assumes control in mid-2017. Release schedules are halted, then life is made difficult when work restrictions are placed on non-Saudi citizens. The graduates are trapped, as the rules prevent them from leaving, yet they cannot earn a living. Moreover, they were encouraged by their religious counselor to start a family as quickly as possible, so now there are mouths to feed.
Smaker does not edit out the absolutely retrograde attitude towards women found even in this oasis of progressive criminal reform. “Women age faster than men,” they are taught. “Don’t choose one close to you in age, because in 10 to 20 years she won’t be able to take care of you and you’ll need to marry again.” When one of the subjects grows frustrated at Smaker’s questioning, he confronts her, shouting, “You should find a husband, a woman like you needs children!” Smaker keeps her cool.
While Jihad Rehab has the goods in terms of subject matter and access, there are some aesthetic choices that don’t quite work. The movie doesn’t really start for 12 minutes. We’re forced to sit through a CNN-like montage that really had me worried about what I had gotten into. Then there is that bane of modern documentary, the animation sequence. It’s unnecessary and cliche. To any documentarians reading, remember that Frederick Wiseman never inserted psychedelic line drawings into his work. Let your subjects speak, and let your audience listen.
That said, this movie is a victory, mostly because it will frustrate viewers who need everything spoonfed to them.
Jihad Rehab is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be released later this year